What is in a name?

Some plant names have interesting histories.

Names are always interesting, we are identified by our name and we often can identify a person’s heritage by their name. Plant names are also very interesting, especially for horticulturist and others that deal with plants for business or pleasure. According to Michigan State University Extension, plants have both a common name and a scientific name.  People in the plant industry, and even lay publications, often use the scientific name. Using the scientific name ensures that everyone is talking about the same plant. Often common names are used regionally or a plant can have many common names. Occasionally multiple plants share one common name. This can be quite confusing when trying to refer to a specific plant.

All plants are identified with a scientific classification system known as taxonomy.  The system used to name organisms is called binomial nomenclature.  Credit is given to a Swedish botanist Carolus (Carl) Linnaeus  for designing this system. It is a universally known system still used today, and based on plant classifications and characteristics.  Some common plant names used today are the original names given by Linnaeus. Others are not, as new classifications occur, as well as many new species are developed.

The Report of the Secretary of the Michigan Horticultural Society’s Fifteenth Annual includes reports submitted by individual county horticulture societies and individuals including Liberty Hyde Bailey.  Linnaeus worked tirelessly classifying plants and reforming the language of botany.  Linnaeus took plants with names like Monoclassiocicallenomenophyllorum, Hypophyllocarpodendron and other plants, such as the wild briar rose. This plant is known by a few different names including Rosa sylvesterous inodora seu canina, Rosa sylvesteris alba cum rubore and folio glabo, eventually reducing them to two words. Rosa canina was the new simplified Latin name for the briar rose. The new naming system consisted of a surname we know as a Genus and a given name we call a species.  The Genus name is always capitalized and the species is always lower case.  Both names are always italicized. For example, Acer rubra is Red Maple.  Acer is the Genus, while rubra is the species (think of it as something specific to that plant). This system is still in use today.

With plant names Linneaus committed to posterity both disgrace and honor. He named beautiful plants he loved after his friends; poisonous and inferior plants he named after his enemies. One known example is Browallia, named after Johannes Browallius who was a fellow botanist, physician and later became a bishop. Linneaus dedicated a genus of plants that contained one single species naming it Browallia demissa (weak).  Linneaus later found another species and named it Browallia elata (tall). The last species he found he named Browallia alienate (alienation) after a falling out with his friend, Browallius.

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